Tate: A freshman question
Daquein McNeil, 20-year-old basketball guard from Baltimore, matched his career high with four points in Minnesota’s 82-78 loss Sunday at Nebraska.
The significance? McNeil was the only freshman among 17 athletes who participated in that slam-bang shootout.
Look around. Weak performances by freshmen don’t bode well for the future of a conference that enjoys carrying the nation’s No. 1 label.
Oh, Nigel Hayes is doing a bang-up job as Wisconsin’s sixth man. Frosh Derrick Walton, with two points in his previous two games, erupted for 19 in Michigan’s 80-75 win at Michigan State. And Stanford Robinson flashed positive signs with 10 points in Indiana’s 56-46 defeat of Illinois.
But with the exception of Indiana’s Noah Vonleh, the Big Ten rebound leader, there isn’t a can’t-miss freshman in the entire conference.
If you’re watching TV tonight, you’ll see up-and-coming Iowa taking on Michigan State without a freshman in the Hawkeyes’ 11-man rotation. Spartans coach Tom Izzo, forced to reach deep due to injuries, has no freshmen among his top six scorers.
Last year, Indiana reached No. 1 and won the Big Ten, Michigan finished second in the NCAA, and strong squads from Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin continued their winning ways.
You would think, as happens in football, that blue chippers would be knocking down the doors to join them.
But Jeff Goodman, who studies these issues for ESPN, just published a Top 25 freshman list topped by Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis and including Kansans Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins, Duke’s Jabari Parker and the obligatory Kentuckians.
And just one from the Big Ten: Vonleh. One out of 25.
This list corresponds with the 35 top incoming freshmen projected earlier by Rivals. There were just two, No. 8 Vonleh and No. 24 Zak Irvin of Michigan (Walton was close at No. 37; highest Illini was Kendrick Nunn at No. 60).
When that happens, when so many more talented recruits are distributed around the country, it changes the balance of power. So I can only conclude, with 18 of Rivals’ Top 20 prep seniors committed and all 18 headed outside the conference, that the Big Ten won’t last long on its exalted perch.
Worth a second look
Let’s look at the conference.
Gary Harris is headed for Big Ten Player of the Year honors and will surely join Michigan State teammates Adreian Payne and Keith Appling in the NBA. Izzo will be hard-pressed next season because his young ones are not special.
Vonleh needs another year at Indiana but may not be able to decline the money. Same with Michigan sophomore Glenn Robinson.
On the other hand, my midseason Big Ten all-star lineup has only one senior, Iowa’s Roy Devyn Marble. The other four are sophomores, who may be tempted but won’t all turn pro: Michigan State’s Harris, Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell, Michigan’s Nik Stauskas and Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker. Payne will be inserted when and if he gets healthy.
My second group has Vonleh, Appling, Robinson and Iowa’s Aaron White, with all eyes following Ohio State’s Aaron Craft, the UI’s Rayvonte Rice and Purdue’s A.J. Hammons to see how they perform in February and March. And let’s keep track of Nebraska’s sophomore transfer from Texas Tech, Terran Petteway, to see if he has any more 35-point games in him.
The Big Ten’s sophomore class appears strong and may have to carry the load for the two classes behind. But for two years running, the Big Ten is trailing the field in attracting prospective NBA talent.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.